Atlantis: Fact or Fable?

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 92, 2003 September)


Introduction

The first record we have of Atlantis is found in the Timaeus and the Critias, two dialogues (named after the principal characters) written by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 BC), who may have composed them about ten years before his death.

In Timaeus Plato claims the history of Atlantis was preserved in the records of the Egyptian priesthood, and that Solon (c. 639 - 559 BC, the Athenian poet and statesman obtained the account from this source. Plato further claims that the tale was heard by Critias' grandfather, and is being retold by Critias in the dialogue. The story is basically this – nine thousand years before Plato's time (11,500 years ago from our perspective) there existed in the Atlantic Ocean an island larger than the combined landmass of Libya and Asia:

"On this island of Atlantis had arisen a powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings, who ruled the whole island, and many other islands as well and parts of the continent; in addition it controlled, within the strait, Libya up to the borders of Egypt and Europe as far as Tyrrhenia ... Atlantis similarly was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; this is why the sea in that area is to this day impassable to navigation, which is hindered by mud just below the surface, the remains of the sunken island." (Timaeus, 25.)

(Note: Scholars refer to Timaeus and Critias by using the page numbers of Stephanus' edition (1578.) These numbers are printed in the margin of Lee's translation from which I am quoting.)

The existence of Atlantis has been accepted as a historical fact by many people, and the number of books written on the subject probably runs into several thousand. The idea of an advanced civilisation that possessed all manner of esoteric knowledge is very popular in New Age literature, and this idea is probably a flow on from the beliefs of earlier occult societies such as the Rosicrucians and Theosophists.

As interesting as the idea of a lost civilisation is, we must have a body of substantial evidence that supports the claim in order for this belief to be justifiable. In this article I will attempt to assess the probability of Atlantis being a historical reality, and will begin with a brief analysis of the role Atlantis plays in Plato's Timaeus and Critias.

Timaeus & Critias

In the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Plato outlines his ideas on Mankind, society, history and their relationship to the Cosmos from a philosophical and theological perspective. This is indicated by the introductory conversation in the Timaeus, where Plato makes Socrates say "my main object was to describe my view of the ideal state and its citizens." (Timaeus, 17.)

Plato appears to have viewed history as cyclical – from a high point of cultural development, civilisation suffers degeneration, is destroyed by periodic cataclysms, and is reduced to a state of barbarity from which it slowly emerges and, in his dialogues, Plato uses the story of Atlantis as a literary device to illustrate his idea:

"The idea of degeneration we meet in the Republic, Book VII the idea of cyclic repetition in the Politicus. And in the Timaeus again we have the notion of periodic destructions by natural cataclysm, followed by a slow redevelopment of civilisation ... Plato is grappling again in Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates* with this problem of development in time, and Atlantis is part of one phase in it." (D. Lee: Appendix on Atlantis, page 148 in Timaeus & Critias.) (*Note Hermocrates is a character in the dialogue who was to take up the account when Critias finished. Plato, however, never completed Critias or began Hermocrates.)

In the Critias, Plato expands his account of Atlantis – its geography, political organisation and various other aspects of its culture, putting words into the mouth of history (so to speak) to illustrate his concept of an ideal society:
"For many generations, so long as the divine element in their nature survived, they [the Atlanteans] obeyed the laws and loved the divine to which they were akin. They retained a certain greatness of mind, and treated the vagaries of fortune and one another with wisdom and forbearance, as they reckoned that qualities of character were far more important than their present prosperity. So they bore the burden of their wealth and possessions lightly, and did not let their high standard of living intoxicate them or make them lose their self-control, but saw soberly and clearly that all these things flourish only on a soil of common goodwill and individual character." (Critias, 120.)
Once we understand what Plato's intentions are, we realise that the account of Atlantis is not a historical fact in the literal sense, rather, Atlantis is like a parable – a fictional account used to illustrate an idea and, if people fail to recognise this, they will read into Plato's dialogue more than he appears to have intended. Atlantean apologists, however, may claim that there is some basis to the myth – Plato made use of a historical fact, possibly altering details here and there to suit his own ends. I shall now consider this possibility. 

Sunken Continents

The story of Atlantis has been expanded and altered by many people, however, the version that has had the most influence on later writers is probably Ignatus Donnelly's Atlantis (published 1882) in which he claims that the first civilisation arose on the continent of Atlantis, and that colonisers from this culture, which possessed advanced scientific knowledge and had a religion of sun worship, populated Asia, the Americas and Europe. According to Donnelly, about 13,000 years ago a volcanic cataclysm sunk the entire continent of Atlantis, and the kings, queens and heroes of this civilisation eventually became the gods and goddesses of ancient religions. The problem is that Donnelly's thesis is not supported by sound evidence:

"To support these contentions, Donnelly marshals a great mass of questionable geological, archaeological, and legendary material – chiefly evidence of similarities between ancient Egypt and the Mexican-Indian cultures of early South America ... Donnelly argues, one must assume the existence of an earlier culture on a continent situated between the two areas." (M. Gardner: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, page 165.)

Unfortunately for believers, the idea of a sunken continent in the Atlantic Ocean is ruled out by our knowledge of geological processes – the Atlantic Ocean was formed by the break-up of Gondwana, an ancient super continent, through the action of continental drift:

"About 200 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean did not exist and the continents were welded together. The Central Atlantic Ocean was born about 150 million years ago as North America split from Africa – the gap created was filled with new ocean crust by the process of sea floor spreading at the mid-ocean ridge. Subsequently, the South Atlantic formed as South America drifted away from Africa. Eventually, a continuous ocean extended from Greenland to the tip of Africa, which increased in width to its present-day size." (S. Lamb & D. Sington: Earth Story, page 56.)

There could never have been another continent in the Atlantic Ocean because as the continents drew apart, the spreading sea floor was progressively covered by water, thus ruling out the possibility of a continent sized landmass existing in the remote past.
 

Lost Civilisations

Is it possible that an advanced civilisation could have existed 11,500 years ago in a location other than a mid-Atlantic continent? Given what we know of ancient civilisations, it seems unlikely. Firstly, there is a link between the development of agriculture and the emergence of highly urbanised cultures:

"One of the most significant aspects of the origins of agriculture is that the correspondence between agriculture and the towns, cities, and other cultural elaborations we call civilisation is absolute. All civilisations have been based on the cultivation of one or more of just six plant species: wheat, barley, millet, rice, maize and potatoes." (R. J. Wenke: Patterns in Prehistory, page 266)

The problem is that 11,500 years ago, the major plant crops – the foundations of civilisation – were not even domesticated: emmer wheat and barley in Palestine, c. 10,600 years ago; rice in Indochina, c. 9,500 years ago; bulrush millet in Southern Algeria, c. 8000 years ago; potatoes in Peru c. (?) 10,000 years ago, and maize in Mexico, c. 7,700 years ago.

Secondly, the first record we have of a town – Jericho – dates from 10,600 years ago. Indeed, predominantly urbanised societies did not emerge until c. 6000 years ago – Uruk (population 7000), Nippur (pop. 5000) and Adab (pop. 5000) In Mesoamerica, civilisation developed much later – Ohmec, the earliest, flourished between c. 1,200 - 900 BC.

There is no evidence in the archaeological record for a highly advanced civilisation circa 11,500 years ago and, considering that the Atlantean Empire was, according to Plato, rather extensive, it is surprising that we find no trace of this culture or its influence on other ancient civilisations. Indeed, the evidence to date indicates that civilisation arose independently in a number of different places:

"The first civilisation happened in Mesopotamia, and that an independent process of synoecism [urbanisation] occurred in Egypt and the Indus Valley, both stimulated from Sumer. China was a more difficult problem, but it does seem to be an example of the independent invention of agriculture and the independent invention of civilisation, although there was contact and borrowing from the West ... the early American civilisations came into existence by their own process of synoecism." (G. Daniel: The First Civilisations, page 189.)  

A Grain of Truth?

Some scholars think Plato's Atlantis may have been based on the destruction of Minoan Crete by a massive volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera (now known as Santorini) around 1,520 BC:

"Let us imagine for a moment that he [Plato] based it [Atlantis] on some folk-tale which Solon had picked up in Egypt; and the Egyptians, as we know, were obsessional record-keepers. Long before 1,400 BC the peoples of the Nile Valley traded with Crete ... Now consider the disaster which struck Crete near the middle of the second millennium. A whole island blows up, leaving a crater one third of a mile deep beneath the sea ... in an age when what we call natural forces were attributed to the gods, it must have seemed that the end of the world was imminent. If any poet or chronicler survived to record that event, his words have perished. But folk-memories would linger; report of the disaster would reach the Mycenaean mainland and, of course, Egypt. It seems to me most likely that the Egyptian priests of the Eighteenth Dynasty would have made records of it, and that these, garbled and suitably embellished to impress the visiting Athenian would be produced some 900 years later for the delectation of Solon." (L. Cottrell: The Lion Gate, page 217.)

Although this scenario is, in my opinion possible, to date archaeologists have not discovered an ancient Egyptian document, myth or legend that resembles Plato's account. Moreover, the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC) makes no mention of Atlantis in his Histories, which is, in my opinion, surprising considering his extensive travels and interests:

"Herodotus' principal concern, as he roamed the earth, was to observe the customs of various non-Greek peoples: Lydians, Babylonians, Indians, Persians, Arabians, Massagetae, Egyptians, Libyans, Scythians, Thracians, and others who lived within or near the immense Persian Empire. He investigated the effects of geography and climate upon the physical appearances, mores, and institutions of peoples, their progress in the arts and sciences, their religions and laws. He was no less interested in legendary and historical accounts of their past, especially as these may have affected their contemporary attitudes and political behaviour." (R. B. Downs: Books That Changed The World, page 116.)

It can be argued that the Egyptian document was the sole record of Atlantis, and by the time of Herodotus' journey through Egypt, the original had been lost, forgotten or destroyed, or that he simply did not speak to those who possessed this knowledge. However, Critias says "My father had his [Solon's] manuscript, which is now in my possession, and I studied it often as a child." (Critias, 113.) If this is true, then a translation would have been available to Herodotus.

Moreover, the dramatic date of the Timaeus and Critias is about 425 BC, and Critias says he first heard the story of Atlantis many years ago on Children's Day, during the festival of Apatoura, when he was about ten years of age (Timaeus, 21.) If Plato's dialogue is based on actual events, then Critias at the time of 425 BC, may have been about twenty. If this is a reasonable assumption, then the date of the festival would have been circa 435 BC, a time when Herodotus was still alive and writing The Histories at Athens.

From Plato's dialogues, it appears the story of Atlantis was told before an audience at the festival, and Critias would not have been the only one to have heard it. Such an interesting tale would, in my opinion have spread, and if this is a reasonable assumption, then why did it escape Herodotus' notice? Would Solon, if he knew of the story, have told it only to Critias' grandfather? Would Critias' grandfather, who heard of it from Solon and related it to Critias on that occasion, be doing so for the first time, especially when we consider the account glorifies prehistoric Athens?

It is possible to argue that Herodotus knew of the story, but made no reference to it because it fell outside the scope of The Histories, which deal with the Persian Wars. However, in order to make his books more interesting, Herodotus makes continual digressions, introducing what he learned during his travels – anecdotes, natural history, and geographical and historical information. Indeed, these digressions fill nearly half of The Histories and, considering that Atlantis is an interesting story, it is strange if Herodotus knew of it, (and I think he would if it existed before Plato's time), that he made no reference to the fact, even in a casual way.
 

Conclusion

Plato's account of Atlantis appears to be a product of his own imagination – a kind of parable used to illustrate his ideas on man, society and history. Plato may have based his story on the destruction of Minoan Crete, however, there is no evidence from archaeology or comparative mythology to support this hypothesis, and therefore it must remain a speculative idea.


ADDENDUM:
To show that fact can often be stranger than fiction, I draw my readers attention to the sunken cities of Herakleion and Canopus, whose fate bears a superficial resemblance to the legend of Atlantis. These cities were built at the mouth of the Nile (at the time, the river's main western branch emptied into the Mediterranean at Abu Qir), and prospered through the control of upriver traffic.

Today the ruins of Herakleion lie submerged 6.5 kilometres from land, while the eastern suburb of Canopus lies 1.6 kilometres offshore in up to 8 metres of water. These cities sank beneath the waves at different times (Herakleion – circa 1st century AD and Canopus circa mid th century AD), and their demise may have been caused by the action of Nile floodwaters upon the unstable soil, resulting in a catastrophic subsidence of the land:

"The sediments beneath the cities are soft and as much as 20 metres deep. They would have been permanently waterlogged – perhaps half their volume was water. Usually, this water is safely trapped in the pores of the sediment. But the extra weight of silt-laden floodwaters can trigger liquefaction – a process in which the layers of soil are so compressed that the pore structure breaks down, forcing the water upwards in a rush. As the water erupts, the ground heaves and bulges, sinking in places and forming domes in others." (S. Pain: Sunken Cities of the Nile, page 45 in New Scientist, Vol. 172, No. 2313.)


Bibliography

Calder, N. Timescale, Chatto & Windus The Hogarth Press, London, 1984.
Cottrell, L. The Lion Gate, Evans Brothers Ltd., London, 1963.
Daniel, G. The First Civilisations, Book Club Associates, London, 1974.
Downs, R.B. Books That Changed the World (Revised Edition), New American Library, New York, 1983.
Gardner, M. Fads & Fallacies In The Name Of Science, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1957.
Herodotus The Histories [Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. Revision, introduction & notes by John M. Marincola], Penguin Books, London, 1996.
Lamb, S. &Earth Story, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998. Sington, D.
Pain, S. Sunken Cities of the Nile, New Scientist, Vol 172, No. 2313
Plato Timaeus & Critias [Translation, introduction & appendix on Atlantis by Desmond Lee], Penguin Books, London, 1977.
Wenke, R.J.Pattems In Prehistory, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, 1980.


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